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We Hit the Wall in Illinois, but Iowa Is Dreamy

Family Postcard. In April, the Paget family embarked on an odyssey across the U.S. Their reports will appear weekly.

June 28, 1992|DALE and SUSAN PAGET | Dale Paget is an Australian journalist . Susan Paget is an American free-lance reporter - photographer

KANKAKEE, Ill. — For the first time on our journey around the United States, we felt like packing up and catching a plane home. Our adventure almost fell apart at a grubby little campground 100 miles south of Chicago where muggy heat, dirty bathrooms, monotony and crying kiddies had us dreaming of the departure lounge at O'Hare International Airport.

It was bound to happen some time. We have traveled more than 6,000 miles through 21 states and there is still almost six weeks of camping and driving to go. We adults feel frazzled and there is a child mutiny brewing in the back seat of our unair-conditioned sedan.

"We wish that we had separate bedrooms to send you to," we tell Henri and Matilda, who somehow have found strength to fight and cry in the wet heat.

Are we having fun yet?

This troubled leg of our journey lasts, mainly, through three states--Ohio, Indiana and Illinois--and begins as we leave Niagara Falls and head west beneath the Great Lakes.

We drive by industrial cities such as Cleveland where the smog hangs so heavy it could have been Los Angeles on a bad day. We ride on tollways with never-changing views of flat farmland divided into neat squares of green.

Feeling tired after a long day in the car, we find the first state park over the Indiana border, in Angola. "Campground Full," a sign says. It is the start of summer, and weekend campsites are often booked. Our only alternative is the nearby Jellystone Park Camp Resort. Yes, Yogi Bear has his own chain of campgrounds.

The price is almost too much to bear--beginning at $18.95 for a tent (at least double the cost of most state and national campgrounds)--but there is no turning back now that the kids have awakened and seen the giant Yogi Bear figures, water slides and playgrounds.

There must be thousands of people here, from Chicago, Cleveland, Toledo. Kids everywhere. To add to the chaos, it is Yogi's "birthday" weekend, meaning hayrides, games and a visit from the bear himself.

Things get crazy when Yogi and his sidekick Boo Boo make an appearance. "I can see a man in there and I see his shoes," Henri tells us after hugging the man in a bear suit. In the Yogi Bear birthday talent contest, Henri wins second prize for singing "America." He is beaten by a bird whistler from Texas.

After dark, the noise fades away just as we realize the campground's neighbor is the Interstate 90 tollway. All night long, we toss and turn trying to block out the sounds of 18-wheelers--their pneumatic brakes hissing and horns honking. Exhausted, Henri and Matilda have fallen asleep like hibernating grizzlies.

We leave Yogi and the tollways and head southwest on back roads into the heartland of America, a Presidential breeding ground.

Some of the tourist attractions along our route are the houses where Abraham Lincoln (in Dixon, Ill.), General Ulysses S. Grant (Galena, Ill.) and Ronald Reagan (Dixon, again) either grew up or lived.

But we choose to buy groceries at the birthplace of the man who is currently a heartbeat away from the Presidency. American flags on the porches of houses and a mixed platter of churches catch our eye as we drive through Huntington, Ind., the town where Dan Quayle was born, just southwest of Ft. Wayne. Huntington is proud of its VP. We talk to local residents who say tourists do drop by to see the house on Polk Street where Dan was raised.

Our side trip to Quayle's hometown is a symptom of our search for something different in this part of the Midwest. The scenery all looks the same, and our AM radio will only pick up gospel stations.

A few wrong turns later we arrive at Kankakee State Park, Ill., a mile away from a women's prison. The camp's bathrooms need a scrub, the air is muggy, the bugs are biting, Henri and Matilda are crying, the zipper on our tent won't budge and we have to pay $12 for a littered campsite. We wish for home . . . or at least a vacation. Perhaps the scenery and circumstances weren't important. We were road-weary and it just so happened that we hit the wall at Kankakee.

Driving in Chicago's traffic jams would have done us in for sure, so we strike the Windy City from our itinerary and ride a one-lane interstate that takes us past such towns as Peru and Normal.

Things are sure to get better . . . we think.

It is the Mississippi River, the border between Illinois and Iowa, that revives us. Crossing the wide muddy waterway at Dubuque, we feel refreshed by the prospect of a new state, and the "Field of Dreams."

"Kevin Costner hasn't been here since the movie," says a saleslady at one of the property's two souvenir stands. She is referring to the cornfield baseball diamond built for the 1989 film that put the small town of Dyersville, Iowa, on the tourist map. "We have up to 300 people at a time out here and some people get real emotional," she says.

Access to the site is free because the owners, who still live here, don't want to commercialize it. For a donation, fans can take a sample of dirt from left field.

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